On February 6, 2017, Happy Apple Pie Shop was just one day away from its soft opening at its home at 226 Harrison Street. In the new kitchen, a staff member made pie crust and neighbors paused on the sidewalk to pop their heads in with a welcome to co-owner Michelle Mascaro. While winter sun poured through the big, front windows, Mascaro took a few minutes to sit and talk with me about the opening and her shop’s mission.
Mascaro said, “About three years ago, I was laid off from my job and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I have a child with an intellectual disability and one of the other moms and I were talking about the common issue which was where will our kids work. There are very few places for people with disabilities in general,” said Mascaro, “It’s generous to say 15% have a job. It’s a very appalling number.” Mascaro explained that the other mom got busy with other commitments, but that she pursued the idea. She says, “I decided that a pie shop would be a great environment.”
Mascaro is passionate about making great pie, in an environment where people with different skills work together. She says, “Our state has very poor support for people over 22. There are agencies that help, but it’s really hard. And what I hear from business people is, I’d love to hire someone [with a disability] but I don’t know how to do that.”
Mascaro incorporated and started baking around Thanksgiving, 2015, at the River Forest Kitchen—a commercial, rental kitchen. She says, “We had a lot of success, but what became apparent was that we couldn’t fulfill our mission which is to create a blended work environment for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Moving in on Harrison Street puts them in the space they need to realize this mission.
It’s a feel-good story with great practical results. Mascaro says, “People love the pie. We make really, really good pie. Because I believe people will come the first time for the story and the second time if you have good pie.” Mascaro, who lives with her family in Oak Park, will also be starting a partnership with Oak Park and River Forest High School soon, offering a place for students with disabilities to visit and work as part of their high school work readiness.
“We want all the people who work for us, adults and younger people, teens, to be visible in the community and to become part of the community, so that people see this as a kind of routine diversity. It’s not a special thing. This is not a sheltered workshop. (That works fine for some people.) But this is an environment where people just come and work together,” Mascaro said.
I asked Mascaro what advice she had for other would-be small business owners in Oak Park and beyond. She mentioned three things. First, she said, realize that opening will take longer than you think. Second, collaborate with other small business owners. And third, “Don’t shrink your dream. Think big,” she said.
Mascaro certainly has thought big, and has delivered on her dream—creating a viable for-profit business while simultaneously meeting a social need. Happy Apple Pie Shop’s grand opening was on Valentine’s Day. Sweet things lie ahead for this business, now ensconced in its new Arts District home.